Updated Friday, January 25, 2013 at 11:31 PM
PepsiCo said Friday that it would no longer use an ingredient in Gatorade after consumers complained.
The ingredient, brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, which was used in citrus versions of the sports drink to prevent the flavorings from separating, was the object of a petition started on Change.org by Sarah Kavanagh, 15, of Hattiesburg, Miss., who became concerned about the ingredient after reading about it online. Studies have suggested there are possible side effects, including neurological disorders and altered thyroid hormones.
The petition attracted more than 200,000 signatures, and this week, Kavanagh was in New York City to tape a segment for “The Dr. Oz Show” scheduled to air next week. She visited The New York Times on Wednesday and while there said, “I just don’t understand why they can’t use something else instead of BVO.”
“I was in algebra class and one of my friends kicked me and said, ‘Have you seen this on Twitter?’ ” Kavanagh said in a phone interview Friday evening. “I asked the teacher if I could slip out to the bathroom, and I called my mom and said, ‘Mom, we won.’ ”
Molly Carter, a Gatorade spokeswoman, said the company had been testing alternatives to the chemical for roughly a year “due to customer feedback.” She said Gatorade initially was not going to make an announcement, “since we don’t find a health and safety risk with BVO.”
Because of the petition, though, company officials changed their minds, Carter said, and an unidentified executive there gave Beverage Digest, a trade publication, the news for its Jan. 25 issue.
Previously, a spokesman for PepsiCo had said in an email, “We appreciate Sarah as a fan of Gatorade, and her concern has been heard.”
Ingredients in food and drinks have come under greater scrutiny in recent years, helped by the ability of consumers to mobilize online. The petition on Change.org noted that BVO has been patented as a flame retardant and is banned as a food additive in Japan, India and the European Union.
BVO will be replaced by sucrose acetate isobutyrate, an emulsifier that is “generally recognized as safe” as a food additive by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The new ingredient will be added to orange, citrus cooler and lemonade Gatorade, as well Gatorade X-Factor orange, Gatorade Xtremo citrus cooler and a powdered form of the drink called “glacier freeze.”
Carter said consumers would start seeing the new ingredient over the next few months.
Health advocates applauded the decision. “Kudos to PepsiCo for doing the responsible thing on its own and not waiting for the FDA to force it to,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Jacobson has championed the removal of BVO from foods and beverages for the past several decades, but the FDA has left it in a sort of limbo, citing budgetary constraints that it says keep it from going through the process needed to formally ban the chemical or declare it safe once and for all.
About 10 percent of drinks sold in the United States contain it, including Mountain Dew, which is also made by PepsiCo; some flavors of Powerade and Fresca from Coca-Cola; and Squirt and Sunkist Peach Soda, made by the Dr Pepper Snapple Group.
PepsiCo said it had no plans to remove the ingredient from Mountain Dew and Diet Mountain Dew, both of which generate more than $1 billion in annual sales.
Heather White, executive director at the Environmental Working Group, said of PepsiCo’s decision, “We can only hope that other companies will follow suit.”
She added, “We need to overhaul how FDA keeps up with the latest science on food additives to better protect public health.”
“I’ve been thinking about ways to take this to the next level, and I’m thinking about taking it to the FDA and asking them why they aren’t doing something about it,” she said. “I’m not sure yet, but I think that’s where I’d like to go with this.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
A look at BVO
Brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, is a stabilizer and emulsifier used to prevent separation of citric oils from the drink they are flavoring.
What is it? It is a vegetable oil that has the element bromine added to it to increase the density of the oil. This prevents the citrus oils from floating to the top of the product. The bromine is obtained by treating brines from salt wells or seawater with chlorine, which displaces the bromine.
Where it’s found: Many citrus-flavored soft drinks, including Gatorade, Mountain Dew, Squirt and Fanta.
Banned as a food additive in: European Union, India and Japan.
Concerns: A 2011 article in Scientific American noted that a few patients who binged on soda “have needed medical attention for skin lesions, memory loss and nerve disorders, all symptoms of overexposure to bromine.” The story also reported that “other studies suggest that BVO could be building up in human tissues. ... In mouse studies, big doses caused reproductive and behavioral problems.”
Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times staff